Background: Research on Gay and Bisexual Boy-Man Sex

Current Study 

A quarter century ago, attention to the issue of sexual encounters between adults and minors increased markedly in the United States (Jenkins, 1998). This increased attention was an outgrowth of initiatives taken by the women's movement, which first focused on the problem of rape and shortly thereafter the problem of incest (Finkelhor, 1984). Rape served as a model for understanding father-daughter incest (Okami, 1990), and incest in turn quickly became the dominant model for understanding sexual encounters in general between men and girls , (Finkelhor, 1984). Based on the rape and incest models, these encounters came to be seen as a form of power abuse and violence that exploited unwilling and powerless victims, inflicting lasting psychological trauma in the process (Okami, 1990). The burgeoning child abuse profession, given a major boost in 1974 by passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, rapidly spread this view, across society, where it has remained well-entrenched ever since (Gardner, 1993;  Jenkins 1998)

As chi1d abuse researchers expanded their domain of inquiry in the early 1980s, research began to include sexual encounters between men and boys, and eventually between women and boys (West, 1998). The incest model also strongly influenced how researchers, other professionals, and the lay public attempted to understand these encounters, inc1uding those between adolescent boys and unrelated adu1ts (Jenkins, 1998; Rind, 1998). For example, Masters et al. (1985) rejected the findings of Sandfort (1983) who concluded that a mostly adolescent sample of Dutch boys experienced their sexual relationships with men predominantly positively. They argued, consistent with the incest model, that these relationships were inherently abusive and exploitative and therefore necessarily negative, regardless of contrary claims by the boys themselves. In rejecting the boys' reports of positive reactions, Masters et al. speculated that they made them up because they were intimidated by the men. Similarly, the media have frequently also exhibited the influence of the incest model. In one typical example, an editorial in a major U.S. newspaper asserted that sexual encounters between adolescent boys and men are "profoundly damaging," because they "invariably involve the imposition of power and exploitation, in the most fearfully private of all ways ... [which leaves] emotional scars, distrusts, [and] self-contempt that last through lifetimes". (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1984, p. 22A).

Recent reviews of the nonclinical literature suggest that the incest model, along with its assumptions of intimidation, violence, and pathogenicity, is not valid for boys in the general population who participate willingly in sexual relations with adults -- "willing" indicates simple as opposed to informed consent (see Rind et al. , 2000, for a complete discussion). Bauserman and Rind (1997), in a review of the nonclinical literature on boy-adult sex, found that willing relations were associated with neutral or positive reactions. Rind et al. (1998), in their meta-analytic review of college samples, found that boy-adult sex was not associated with symptoms when the boys were willing participants. In these samples, most boys with experiences labeled child sexual abuse reacted positively or neutrally (66% ), whereas most girls reacted negatively (72%). These gender differences, which appeared to an equal degree in the national probability samples meta-analytically reviewed by Rind and Tromovitch (1997), imply that it is generally not valid to extrapolate from girls' experiences, especially father-daughter incest, to those of boys.

Nonclinical studies reporting data on woman-boy sex (e.g., Condy et al., 1987; Promuth and Hurkhart, 1987; West and Woodhouse, 1993; Woods and Dean, 1984) have generally found that boys react predominantly positively to these encounters, especially if they are adolescents at the time. Presumably, most of the boys in these studies were heterosexual, given the predominance of heterosexuality in the general population. It follows that, if adolescent heterosexual boys respond predominantly positively to sexual relations with older females, then adolescent gay or bisexual boys may respond similarly to such relations with older males. This inference differs markedly from expectations that follow from the incest model. It was the purpose of this study to examine these competing predictions.

Background: Research on Gay and Bisexual Boy-Man Sex

Relatively little research has directly examined age-discrepant sexual experiences of gay or bisexual boys (Doll et al. , 1992). A brief review of research that has been done is presented next. Clinical, clinic-based, nonclinical, and cross-cultural data are examined.

Myers (1989) reported on 14 men (eight of whom were gay) from his clinical practice who experienced sexual abuse as adults or boys. Half the gay patients as boys had sexual contacts with men. One, at age 11, was abused on a camping trip by his teacher, who attempted fellatio and sodomy. He felt "dirty" from the experience and felt "frozen and scared stiff" for several weeks, reacting with hyperalertness and insomnia. Another reported that, at age 13, he was raped repeatedly for hours by two men after he was drugged, gagged, and tied down by all four extremities. For the next half year, he had flashbacks of the rapes and nightmares of suffocation and death. Both of these patients currently suffered from depression. Half the gay patients were intensely homophobic. Dimock (1988) reported on 25 patients who experienced overt sexual contact as boys that they felt powerless to resist and that they or he believed had produced harmful results. He found that 64% of his sample, including both homosexual and heterosexual patients, exhibited some confusion about their sexual preference. 

Doll et al. (1992) examined 1,001 homosexual or bisexual men attending sexually transmitted disease clinics. Thirty five percent were encouraged or forced by an older or more powerful male to have sex before age 19 (their median age was 10; their partners' was 21). Reactions at the time were 27% positive, 15% neutral, and 58% negative. Half the episodes involved some form of force, and 43% were incestuous. Force was the strongest predictor of negative reactions. Positive reactions were associated with lengthier relationships. Bartholow et al. (1994), using the same data set, reported that this early sex was associated with more mental health counseling/hospitalization and drug abuse, less social support, and an altered process of sexual identity development (e.g. , less comfort regarding sexual attractions). These associations, however, were all small.

Many other researchers have also expressed concern that man-boy sex may interfere with sexual development. Finkelhor (1984) reported that college males who had sex as boys with older males were four times more likely to be currently engaging in homosexual activity. He attributed this to a stigma effect, in which boys with such experiences label themselves homosexual and thereby become one. Various researchers have used this result along with others (e.g., Johnson and Shrier, 1985) to argue that homosexuality is an adverse outcome of man-boy sex (e.g., Mendel, 1995; Urquiza and Capra, 1990). "Seduction" as an important contributor to homosexual development is a staple of some schools of psychoanalytic thought, reflected in the opinion expressed by the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), an organization of Psychoanalysts and psychoanalytically oriented psychologists committed to treating, curing, and preventing homosexuality (  ).

In contrast to clinical or clinic-based studies, a number of studies based on convenience samples consisting of gay or bisexual men obtained through advertisements placed in gay magazines, bars, bookstores, or conferences have frequently yielded a predominantly positive profile of gay and bisexual boys' sexual experiences with men (e.g., Fellows, 1996; Hart, 1995; Jay and Young, 1977; Spada, 1979). They also have generally pointed out the commonness of early sexual attractions to and desires for older adolescent and adult males. For example, Spada (1979), who examined 1,038 male homosexuals aged 16-77 across the United States through mail questionnaires, reported that

In the case of a respondent's first youthful experience taking place with an adult, it is usually stressed by the respondent that it was he who made the first advance, he who desired and initiated the encounter, and that no coercion or seduction by the adult took place. Several dozen did describe their first experience as a seduction, but just three reported the use of force (p. 30).

In an illustrative case of the generally positive reactions reported, a respondent recalled that, when he was 12, his scoutmaster fellated him. He commented, "1 liked it. It felt good and I think it made us closer as friends and someone I could turn to when I had problems." West and Woodhouse (1993), based on a college sample, reported similar findings in terms of homosexually oriented boys' initiation of and positive reactions to sex with adult males.

Jay and Young (1977) obtained data from 4,239 gay or bisexual male respondents aged 14-82. They found that boyhood crushes and fantasies regarding older males were common. One respondent, who looked at men's underwear models in catalogs when he was 9 or 10 years old, remembered that "[I] prayed very sincerely and faithfully that God would put those men in a locked room that only I had a key to, and would obey me like robots" (p. 83). Sexual experiences with older males were often positive. One respondent recalled that, at age 11, he was seduced by a man in his 20s living in his house. He remembered that it "was a little shaky at first but after it began I realized I liked it" (p. 90). Only a few experiences involved force or violence. The authors provided a sampling of 16 opinions to the , question "whether sexual contacts with adults were helpful or not" (p. 97): most were positive (69%) or neutral (12%). 

In March 1999 the Rind et al. (1998) meta-analysis came under intense attack by social conservatives (see Rind et al., 2000, for details). The Philadelphia radio talk show host who initiated the nationwide attacks pressured the Philadelphia gay and lesbian bookstore to remove all materials on intergenerational sex (e.g., books, newsletters). The owner yielded, but protested that "I have thought it interesting, that so many gay men I know report having had positive sexual experiences with adults when they were boys" (Giovanni's Room press release, March 24, 1999).

Reacting to this comment and the controversy surrounding the meta-analysis, two journalists for a Phi1adelphia gay publication conducted interviews at various gay youth centers with male teen volunteers who had had sexual re1ations with men (Nickels and Hocker, 1999). Results supported the bookstore owner's observation: most of the nine volunteers reacted positively and none reacted negatively. Rejecting the notion that they had been abused, the teens instead identified various psycho1ogical, emotional, and educational benefits that the relationships conferred.

The research just reviewed has focused on the age-discrepant sexua1 experiences of gay and bisexual boys in a society that has traditionally condemned homosexuality and currently anathematizes man-boy sex. It is thus instructive to examine how homosexua1ly oriented boys in other cultures that do not share these attitudes react to such experiences. 

Williams (1996) has provided relevant data based upon field research among Native Americans and Po1ynesians, in which he interviewed "two-spirit" persons (i.e., Native American berdaches and Polynesian mahus). Two-spirit men are differently gendered and are accepted and appreciated in their societies for their unique contributions. They are usually homosexually oriented and play the passive role in sexual relations with masculine ma1es; these relations are socially sanctioned and generally begin before puberty. Wi1liams found that the vast majority of his interviewees expressed pleasant memories of their boyhood sexual experiences with older males. For example, one man had a re1ation with a 40-year-old man when he was eight. He commented: "Since he was good to me and for me, it was considered by my family to be okay and my own business-no one else's" (p. 428). Williams came across only one interviewee who felt traumatized by an age-discrepant experience, which involved being raped by his alcoholic grandfather. He also found that masculine-oriented males who had sexual relations with older males as boys found them to be predominantly positive. He concluded that culture is an important factor in determining how boys perceive these relations; when it is accepting, these relations tend not to be problematic and may even help a boy's maturation.

Current Study

The review of research on gay and bisexual boys' sexual encounters with older males shows a wide range of reactions. Clinical case studies, consistent with the incest model in their findings, appear to be highly unrepresentative of this population. Causal attributions regarding symptoms are problematic, because clinical subjects often come from disorganized family environments -- Dimock (1988) described all of his subjects as coming from chaotic homes. 

The clinic-based research of Bartholow el al. (1994) and Doll el al. (1992) was not especially supportive of this model, because psychological correlates of these sexual encounters were all small and comfort regarding sexual attractions was high on average among subjects with these experiences (M = 1.6, where 1 = very comfortable, 5 = very uncomfortable), contrary to Bartholow el al.'s erroneous description of "lack of comfort" (Bartho1ow el al., 1994, p. 755). The generalizability of this sample is limited because men of low socioeconomic status were over represented -- which could account for the high percentage of force and incest cases relative to national samples (cf: Rind el al., 1998). Its relevance to gay and bisexual adolescent males is limited because most subjects in this study had their sexual encounters with older males when they were preadolescent. The nonclinical and cross-cultural data were completely inconsistent with the incest model. An important shortcoming of this research, however, is that no data based on standard measures of Psychological adjustment were gathered.

The purpose of the current study was to add to scientific knowledge in this area by presenting research that avoided the shortcomings just discussed. A nonclinical, mostly middle class sample of young adult gay and bisexual males was examined. Both adjustment and reaction data were analyzed, as were data concerning sexual orientation development. Consistent with the nonclinical and cross-cultural research just reviewed, and contrary to predictions from the incest model, it was expected that age-discrepant sexual relations (ADSRs) between gay or bisexual males and adult men would be experienced predominantly non negatively and would not be associated with adjustment problems. Furthermore, contrary to psychoanalytic theorizing and labeling theory, it was not expected that homosexual interests would be the "adverse" outcome of ADSRs. In the current study, ADSR was defined as a sexual encounter or relationship involving at least genital contact between a gay or bisexual boy aged less than 18 with a man aged at least 18 and at least 5 years older than the boy.